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Grotesque Murder Is Investigated for Racial Motives

Violence: Two whites are charged with burning a black man alive. White House comments on case.

August 17, 1997|ARLENE LEVINSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ELK CREEK, Va. — Smoke from the burning body and the sweet smell of gasoline filtered up through the trees. One woman saw the flames and heard the moans. She fled, stumbling through thorny brambles, running for her life.

It had sounded like horseplay. Those boys liked to tease. "We're going to take G.P. out there and put him on that white cross and burn him," she quotes one as saying.

Three weeks after Garnett Paul "G.P." Johnson, a black man, was doused with fuel, burned alive, then beheaded, a witness who stayed behind has told the Associated Press what she saw that night.

Now Hazel Louise Anderson is frightened.

"Lord, I wish I had never been there," she says, then adds, "He could have killed me. Then there would have been nobody there to tell."

*

Sheriff Jerry Wilson saw the smoke when he pulled off the two-lane highway at 6 a.m. and drove up the steep dirt driveway to the trailer on the hill. Off on a rise, he saw Johnson's still-smoldering remains.

A short distance away lay Johnson's head.

Walking steadily away from the body and toward the sheriff was Louis Ceparano, a newcomer to the county.

Just hours before, Ceparano had invited Johnson, a slight, 40-year-old handyman, and three white friends to an impromptu birthday party. But sometime before dawn, Johnson was hideously murdered.

Locals, black and white, insist such a crime could not happen amid their own. Only an outsider could wreak such havoc and heartbreak.

"As far as the racial, it's not the community," says Mary Thompson, a black woman who works in a jeans factory and whose sister dated Johnson. "It's what moved into the community."

*

When party guests Christy Harden and Emmett Cressell Jr. reached the sheriff's office in Independence, they reported that Ceparano had dragged Johnson into the yard, set him afire and "then bragged about it."

Three days later, Cressell, 36, was himself charged with first-degree murder, accused of helping Ceparano, 42, carry Johnson outside. Later, Ceparano's charge was upgraded to capital murder. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations.

Cressell denies the charges, according to Sheriff Wilson, and Ceparano refuses to talk, except to tell the Roanoke Times he downed the anti-anxiety drugs Valium and Xanax along with bourbon, beer and moonshine on the night of the party.

"I was pretty out of it," Ceparano says. "I was there, but I really wasn't there."

*

Just 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds, G.P. Johnson is described as lovable, sweet, helpful--and a talker.

Johnson shared a tidy, white-shingled house with his 77-year-old widowed father, Garnett Sr. Among family photographs on shelves is his formal portrait in a Marine Corps uniform and a snapshot of G.P. in his high school football jersey.

Garnett Johnson's soft, sad eyes brim. "He was a good boy," he tells anyone who asks. "He drank. But he never did bother nobody."

*

Junior Cressell is a raw-boned 6-foot-2, with cropped blond hair and blue eyes. His bulging back and arms are splashed with tattoos.

"He's dangerous, to tell you the truth," says Horace Hensley Jr., one of the few willing to be quoted by name talking about Junior. He lives in Speedwell, where Cressell keeps a trailer.

At 19, Cressell spent two years behind bars for burglary. Ten years later, he was convicted of fraud for keeping a rented video camera. In July, he was charged with assaulting a man who had to be hospitalized with a broken nose and a minor stroke.

*

When Louie Ceparano moved to Elk Creek, a town of 500 in the southwestern wedge of Virginia, he brought more than the usual baggage.

In trouble with police much of his life, he had been arrested for burglary and shoplifting and had served two years for sexually abusing a child, say probation officials in Suffolk County, N.Y.

Both his parents are dead.

A month before the murder, deputies raided Ceparano's trailer and seized a small amount of marijuana and a shotgun--not allowed because of his felony conviction for sexual abuse.

Lina Miller watched Ceparano grow up from a house across the street in North Babylon, N.Y. He dropped out of high school, washed out of Marine Corps basic training, put in two years in the Army and failed twice at marriage. Along the way, he fathered two sons and a daughter, teenagers by now.

Told of the murder charge, Miller, 64, lets out a sad sigh. "I would think it was the drugs. It destroyed him."

*

Louise Anderson met Louis Ceparano about five months ago. Louie and Louie. She liked him. He needed her. She drives a car, and Louie had sold his. He took to relying on her to get around.

A self-styled hillbilly, Anderson wears her light brown hair in a brush cut. She stands barely 4-foot-11 because of a severe swayback and the stubby, twisted legs she was born with.

On the evening of July 24, he wanted some beer. They drove to a shop in Speedwell, where they found Junior Cressell on the phone, Christy Harden looking for action on her 21st birthday and G.P. Johnson already intoxicated and buying more beer.

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